Monday, July 5, 2004

A Prayer for the Beltline

View the proposed Beltline track mapIt goes without saying that Atlanta has something of a transportation crisis on its hands. Our highway system is bursting with traffic, choking to a stop in every direction at least twice a day. Our under-funded rail network – the only metro rail system in the country to operate without any local government funding – is slowly losing its battle with aging equipment and a malevolent city government that pines for its bankruptcy.

It’s no wonder road rage has become such a popular Atlanta pastime.

In this atmosphere of commuter desperation and aggravation, it’s a pleasant surprise to learn about the Beltline – a proposal to combine four disused light freight rail lines to create a European-style tram system circumnavigating the metro Atlanta area and linked to the existing commuter rail system.

Metro-area commuters unite: Hallelujah!

Imagine walking a few steps from your Grant Park home, catching a European-style tram, and zipping off for lunch at the King Plow Center. This is not a MARTA station bursting with noise and fast-paced transients, but a quaint station on the Beltline connecting you to other metro-Atlanta communities and parks, including Piedmont Park, Grant Park, and the Zoo. Imagine bicycle and pedestrian paths engaging diverse parts of the city. Imagine opening 4,000 acres for redevelopment that could accommodate 100,000 new residents – all of whom are a short walk from an environmentally friendly transit system that does not cut through historic neighborhoods but flows along the seams between them.

Sounds pretty good to us.

The Beltline concept began life as a Georgia Tech student's thesis. Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard then took over, transforming this college dissertation into a bona fide transit proposal.

The Atlanta Beltline proposes to connect over 50 of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods with a new transit line and network of parks. Bicycle and pedestrian pathways will follow the 22-mile loop, which would connect with existing MARTA stations at five locations (Lindbergh, Inman Park/Reynoldstown, West End, Ashby and Bankhead).

The promise is that intown Atlanta has a tremendous amount of neglected urban real estate ready for reinvestment, particularly to the city’s south and west. The city also has a large quantity of urban redevelopment underway, increasing density and straining traffic, particularly on the city’s north and east. Perhaps too conveniently, many of these redevelopment sites are strung together by several old "belt line" railroads. After the Civil War, these minor freight lines developed to serve the city’s expanding industrial base. Since they preceded urban expansion, bungalow streetcar suburbs were nestled up against them. The railroads, therefore, tend not to cut through historic neighborhoods, but instead lie at the seam between them, making these in-between spaces ideal sites for urban redevelopment.

More than just an improved network of public transportation, however, the Belt Line is a transportation greenway, circling the central city as a linear park, connecting big city parks like Piedmont, Freedom, Grant, Perkerson, and Maddox Parks and little neighborhood parks like Stanton, Adair, Washington, and Tanyard Creek Parks. Bicycle and pedestrian paths join light rail or bus transit, engaging parts of Atlanta as different as Brookwood Hills and Pittsburgh, Piedmont Hospital and Zoo Atlanta. It connects Ansley Mall to the King Plow Arts Center and City Hall East to the Wren's Nest in West End. Furthermore, with an influx of new residents moving closer into the City, the Belt Line accesses developable land and re-uses historic urban fabric in ways that contribute to the health of urban neighborhoods. Stations would be designed for neighbors and would more resemble bus stops than MARTA stations, eliminating elevated platforms, turnstiles, escalators and parking lots.

Atlanta Beltline planners point to the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon as a flourishing example of this type of light rail project. Portland has developed an urban streetcar that now runs through an old warehouse district. Since the Portland project was finished, $1 billion in real estate sales along the streetcar’s path have been grossed and business growth in the newly connected communities has surged. The Atlanta Beltline may have a big price tag – almost $600 million – but the Beltline may encourage an amazing amount of growth and help revitalize vacant land through the metro area.

But as many metro Atlantans can tell you, this is not the first public-transit solution to step up to the plate only to be knocked flat by local bureaucracy and the overpowering almighty love of the car.

So far, only $100 million of the estimated $583 million the project needs will come from guaranteed sources. And three large sections – nearly a fifth of the Beltline's proposed path – are currently impassable for passenger travel. Owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern these tracks see as many as 15 freight trains a day. Other sections are owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation – the GDOT doesn't agree with Beltline's planners on how the project should proceed.

But the project is moving ahead. As of this writing the Beltline proposal has made the short list of transit projects that will get millions in funding over the next seven years – beating out four MARTA line extensions and every commuter rail proposal except one. On May 12, Mayor Shirley Franklin announced the formation of a steering committee to guide the Beltline through the quagmire of transportation planning's bureaucracy to completion. A feasibility study is underway to be completed in Fall 2004. The project has been included in Atlanta’s Comprehensive Development Plan and received a funding commitment from the PATH Foundation. A nonprofit organization has been founded to support the project, “Friends of the BeltLine,” and discussions have begun with CSX and Norfolk Southern, who still use a few miles of the anticipated beltline network for freight, and GDOT.

And revisions are being made to the original plan. Engineers with the Beltline's feasibility study are designing alternative routes to bypass CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, leading the beltline down Moreland Avenue, from the Carter Center, through Little Five Points, and past the Sembler development now under construction on the old Atlanta Gas Light property. A plan also has been suggested to lay light rail tracks into Marietta Boulevard and Northside Drive, a route that would swing by the new aquarium, the proposed World of Coca-Cola mixed-use development, the Georgia Tech campus, the Georgia Dome, and the new developments – including the massive Atlantic Station development – on the west and northwest side of downtown.

Keep your eyes open next time you drive around the city. The kudzu-shrouded tracks are plainly visible across town, beside the Park Tavern and through Peidmont Park, by the MLK center, inside both Ansley and Inman parks. There is even a driving tour of the Beltline course that you can follow at

Is this the ultimate solution to Atlanta’s commuter woes? Far from it. Would it go a long way to alleviate our persistent traffic headaches and improve the quality of our metro lifestyles? Absolutely. fb

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